Let Us Learn From Our Past and Welcome Syrians to the United States!

First, a little first about my parents and grandparents. My family is from central Europe; my parents were born and grew up in Vienna, Austria as assimilated Jews. In March 1938, the Austrian government welcomed the invasion of Nazi Germany although there was some popular resistance. Germany immediately annexed Austria. My dad who was 22 years old was arrested and imprisoned in late March 1938 for being active in the Jewish community. He was also beaten by the guards but was released in August 1938. My father and mother immediately fled Austria for France which let in many Jews in although they also limited entry; e.g., from Poland which had the largest Jewish population in Europe.

My parents expected an imminent German invasion so they knew they had to leave France as soon as they could. They wanted to go to Australia or the United States, but at first couldn’t get a visa to either country. They found a U.S. sponsor and an official in the U.S. embassy in France also helped them and they came to the U.S. a year later, in June, 1939, shortly before German occupation of France. The St. Louis, a ship with 900 Jews fleeing Germany was refused entry to the United States in 1939 and sent back; 1/3 of whom were later killed in concentration camps. The majority of Jews in 1938-1940 who applied for entry into the U.S. did not get permission to come to the U.S.

My grandmother made it from Vienna to Sweden in 1939, where we had relatives. She couldn’t get a visa to the U.S. even with my parents sponsoring her. She finally got one to Cuba where she lived until 1946, when she got a United States visa which permitted her to come to Queens, NY where we grew up. Her ex-husband, my grandfather went back from Vienna to Czechoslovakia where he was born and had grown up in although it too was occupied by Nazi Germany. He was hidden on a farm by a Catholic family for the entire war. He died of cancer in 1945, shortly before the war ended, on the farm where he was being hidden. He was a holocaust victim because he couldn’t go to a hospital for fear of fear being found out. The family who hid him for five years did a courageous act of solidarity. They risked their own lives to help my grandfather. I hope people here today would also do the same.


I have recounted this history because there are many analogies between the situation and treatment of Jewish and Roma (sometimes called Gypsies) at the beginning of World War II with Syrians today. If the United States and England and other countries outside of Europe had opened their borders more widely, hundreds of thousands or more Jews and others wanting to flee fascist persecution would have survived.

I will focus on the period of the late 1930’s and 1940-1941 as that was the period when emigration from Europe was more possible than later in the war but was severely restricted, The reasons given for limiting Jewish entry into the U.S. in this period included the following.

1) Jews are not Christian but an alien religion; and the U.S. is a Christian nation. Consider the analogy to Islamophobia! To Islamophobes, Islam is an alien religion that threatens “our” values and therefore Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis should not be permitted to enter. It is Jeb Bush and the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, saying the U.S. should only accept Syrian Christians.

2) There were many politicians then, Republicans and Democrats alike, and many in the mass media, radio and newspaper, claiming then that Jews were communists or anarchists and/or Soviet agents who were coming to revolutionize the United States and overthrow the government and should not be let in. This is analogous to the argument today and especially since 9/11/2001 in the U.S., Canada and many European countries that Muslims are taking over, want to take over and therefore should be excluded.

In a 1939 Gallup poll, 61 to 30 percent of those interviewed said they were against 10,000 Jewish children from Germany being allowed to come and live in the United States. This two to one margin was a ratio similar to many other polls, e.g., among college students, against letting Jews being admitted to the United States.

This two to one ratio against Jewish entry, 75 years ago, is similar to many polls today on whether to admit Syrian refugees to the United States. In a recent Washington Post poll, 54% responded they were against any Syrians being admitted. 31 Governors, 30 Republicans and 1 Democrat, support stopping all Syrians refugees from living in their states, either permanently or temporarily, until there is careful checking one by one of each person applying to live there. Fortunately governors do not have that power, only the federal government does. These pronouncements by these governors both reflect and contribute to the anti-refugee and anti-Arab and Anti-Islamic climate that we must challenge in words and practice. The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill in which 47 Democrats joined 242 Republicans that calls for temporarily banning all Syrian and Iraqi applicants from gaining refugee status.

3) A major argument against admitting Jews just before and during World War II was that Nazis would enter the U.S. with false papers claiming they were Jews fleeing Germany or that Jews would be blackmailed to be spies to save relatives back home. President Franklin Roosevelt and the State Dept used the argument of potential spies among those wanting to enter the U.S. as a reason for severely limiting entry. According to my study of this claim, only one person was charged as a Nazi spy even though the FBI conducted thorough investigations of those seeking entry which continued after they were living in the United States. My parents were interrogated by the FBI after living here for a few years to see whether they were Nazi agents; they were not.

A similar claim is being made today in the U.S. although not one person convicted in the U.S. of a terrorist attack here has been a Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan refugee. There is already thorough security checks of people’s background of those who want to come here. Moreover, the cost of trying to obtain absolute security means closing and militarizing our borders even more than they already are, and increased surveillance and police powers at home. The costs in human lives caused by exclusion as well as its immorality are not acceptable.

4) A fourth argument is that the United States should be doing more for its own population and can not afford to spend money on refugees. A sign at a recent anti-refugee demonstration on November 20th, 2015 against Governor Inslee, because he said he welcomed Syrian refugees to Washington State, was “Vets Before Refugees” This was also the argument in the late 1930’s, in a period of even higher unemployment and poverty than now. There are 40 million poor people in the United States, using government definitions, and in reality twice that, continuing racial and women’s oppression, growing economic inequality, police violence and mass incarceration disproportionately against Black, Latino and Native Americans, and many other issues. However, the people who oppose Syrian refugees and immigrants are also the same people who oppose policies such as full employment, raising the minimum wage, reproductive rights, veteran’s benefits, and taxing the wealthy and corporations, all of which would help both refugees and the oppressed here. These right-wing fear based politics go far beyond Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

The estimated cost of Obama’s proposed resettlement plan of Syrians in the U.S. in 2016 is $1.2 billion.  A 20% additional tax on the income of top 1% would yield over $600 billion dollars a year which could end homelessness and make housing more affordable, fund free college for all, provide affordable and universal high quality health care and make childcare more accessible. It could end poverty. In addition, the government could raise the minimum wage, and at little cost could increase employment. So it is not either helping refugees or helping people already living here but both. We need to strengthen social movements demanding immigrant, economic and social justice and/or supporting candidates such as Bernie Sanders who wants to both support refugees and U.S. residents. This is not meant as an endorsement of Sanders and he has limitations but he does address many of these urgent issues. If we cut the military budget and release many prisoners there is even more money available for ending poverty and accepting refugees.

Moreover, I was in Greece last summer, a country whose population is about that of Washington and Oregon State together, but where more than 700,00 refugees have entered in 2015, the majority Syrian. The large majority of those entering Greece do not stay for extended periods. . They enter primarily on small boats from Turkey and hope to go further west. Many die during their passage to Greece in overcrowded boats not built for rough waters. There is intense exploitation by those profiting from organizing these dangerous voyages. It is similar to those profiting from the immigration to the United State of those fleeing economic and political violence from Mexico and Central America who should also be called refugees. I was impressed by the solidarity of thousands of Greek people, many whom are poor and unemployed, sharing their food, clothing, medicines, and even their houses with refugees. We can do that here also.

Obama has proposed resettling 10,000 Syrians in the U.S. in 2016 and has challenged the extreme fortress America, close our borders rhetoric. This is positive but admitting 10,000 is a drop in the bucket and is insufficient. It is analogous to the limited entry that was granted to Jews, Roma and others fleeing the Nazis. According to the U.N., there are four million Syrian refugees outside of Syria, mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and seven million internally displaced refugees, together almost ½ of the Syrian population. They are victims of ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, and even more of the murderous Syrian State of Bashar al-Assad. According to the U.N., more than 250,000 Syrians have been murdered since 2011, mainly by the Assad government. The numbers are growing daily. This is equivalent in relation to population to three million people being killed in the United States. We should be accepting and welcoming far more than 10,000 Syrians a year. France, even after the horrific November 13th mass murder in Paris said they would still accept 30,000 Syrians over the next two years.

In closing, I am comparing the U.S. fears and restricted permission of Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930’s and early 1940’s to the almost total exclusion of Syrians today and also the restrictions on entry from Afghanistan Iraq, Mexico and Central America, including thousands of Central American children. There are many parallels. I am making this comparison because it is far easier to criticize the past and its ideology than the present because we are not living in the period like the late 1930’s, where anti-Semitism and sympathy for the Nazis was common. We are not as conscious how inhuman and reactionary the current Islamophobia, and anti immigrant and anti-refugee rationalizations are, because we hear these ideas daily. I am asking you to be as critical of our current anti-refugee and discriminatory policies and ideology as we now are but were not then, of U.S., Canadian, Australian and other countries policies in the late 1930’s.

Steps Forward

We should talk to our friends, acquaintances, family, fellow students and workers, in our places of worship and in our communities about fighting this fear based and racist politics and work to change policy and welcome people whose lives are in danger. Syrian refugees are victims not the cause of the extreme violence and growing poverty in Syria.

One concrete step at the Evergreen State College that we could do is to invite Syrians outside the United States to apply as students and accept them and make it affordable for them to be students and live here. Other institutions should figure out concrete ways to aid Syrian and other refuges such as providing sanctuary in addition to educating the public and changing policy.

Let us learn from the past so we don’t repeat it!

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Peter Bohmer is a faculty member in Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He has been an activist since 1967 in movements for fundamental social change.

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